As the dust begins to settle after the LTTE attack on Elephant Pass-Paranthan defences on January 9, Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Rohan Daluwatte, named two high ranking Army officers to conduct a detailed probe.
The move came after the Army Chief made a tour last week of the affected base and other military installations in the north.
The Court of Inquiry is headed by Major General E. H. Samaratunga, Deputy Overall Operations Commander and includes Major General Lionel Balagalle, General Officer Commanding the Army's 51 Division headquartered in Jaffna . A senior Colonel has been named as Secretary. The Court has already begun its inquiry.
Among the matters to be inquired into by the Court is the crucial question on why advance intelligence warnings of an attack were not heeded. I reported in these columns last week that none other than the Overall Operations Commander (OOC), Major General Asoka Jayawardena personally warned many defence establishments in the north of a possible LTTE attack that week There were of course reports that the threat centred on Vettilaikerny.
Yet, as Vettilaikerny - Elephant Pass - Kilinochchi is a contiguous defended area, the likelihood of the threat should have been applicable to anywhere in that zone.
The Court will also determine how the LTTE attack penetrated the Paranthan defences to isolate Kilinochchi. It will also assess the damage and loss of weapons and equipment.
Military officials have still not been able to clearly ascertain the final death toll or the exact number Missing in Action. On the basis of their verification so far, the Ministry of Defence has placed the official death toll at 223 including five officers whose ranks are Captains and below. This figure excludes the bodies of 29 persons, claimed by the LTTE to be soldiers and offered to the ICRC. The latter, however, had declined to accept them on the grounds that they were badly decomposed and not recognisable.
According to these officials, intercepts of LTTE radio transmissions had enabled them to identify the names of 197 cadres killed. They claimed that they had recovered the bodies of another 70 LTTE cadres, mostly women, in a decomposed state. They said this discovery came during four to five days of searches. The bodies were scattered in various areas in the temporarily over-run Paranthan defence complex as well as in areas outside the FDLs.
As reported in these columns last week, military officials in the over-run positions claimed they had immobilised some artillery lest they fall into enemy hands. The claim had an unusual rejoinder from the LTTE. In a statement issued from its offices in London, the LTTE claimed:
"Newspaper readers in Tamil Vanni have been seeing front-page pictures of the LTTE's major victory in Thursday's battle against Sri Lankan forces at Paranthan and Elephant Pass. The photographs which appeared in the Tamil Eelam daily "Eelanatham" show Sri Lanka's large weapon stocks being lined up and demolished in sequence by LTTE forces within the confines of the Army camps.
"The LTTE later retreated taking as much equipment as they could carry. The Sri Lankan defence ministry had Thursday morning claimed Sri Lankan forces had themselves destroyed military hardware to stop its falling into LTTE hands but the photos show categorically this was not so. Eleven large artillery pieces are clearly depicted in the photos being blasted by LTTE demolition units."
However, no copies of the LTTE's Tamil language daily have as yet arrived in Colombo. Hence the claim cannot be verified.
There were similar claims and counter claims of artillery weapons being seized and or destroyed soon after Tigers overran the Mullaitivu military base in July last year.
However by September (also last year) during the conduct of "Operation Sath Jaya" to recapture Kilinochchi, troops confirmed the LTTE was using artillery guns captured from the Mullaitivu base. This was further confirmed by senior military officials in Kilinochchi in October, last year, when a team of local media personnel visited the area.
Whatever the claims and counter claims may be the loss of military hardware during the LTTE attack on Elephant Pass - Paranthan defence is estimated to be over Rs. 40 million. This included the loss of artillery guns, ammunition dumps, small arms, ammunition and communications equipment. If that was a big loss to suffer in financial terms, the security forces have had the misfortune of incurring further losses with the beginning of the new year.
Last week, a Sri Lanka Air Force Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or a pilotless surveillance aircraft on a mission over the skies of the northern village of Kayts suddenly plunged into the seas. This particular UAV is said to have sophisticated camera and other equipment on board. SLAF officials in Palaly were making attempts yesterday to retrieve the UAV with the help of the Sri Lanka Navy. A fleet of UAVs and command units were purchased by the Government from Israel at a cost of around US dollars nine million.
Last week Tiger guerrillas seized a Navy patrol craft.
Since the attack on the Elephant Pass - Paranthan defences, a string of incidents occurred in the north during the past week. The first was an attack on the western defences of Cheddikulam military base in which five soldiers were killed last Saturday. On Sunday eight soldiers died when a tractor carrying a load of soldiers went over a landmine in the security forces controlled Kachchai in the Valikamam sector of the Jaffna peninsula.
Yet, even after Mullaitivu debacle and Paranthan, the Government asserts the LTTE as a weakened force. It was only last Monday that Dr. G.L. Peiris, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, was quoted in a national daily as having said that the LTTE has been "considerably weakened".
If these claims are correct then it augurs well for the country as perhaps a weakened LTTE may be more inclined to negotiate for peace rather than to continue an armed struggle in a debilitated condition. This perhaps is wishful thinking.
Are these claims in fact correct and based on a realistic assessment of the LTTE's military and political capability? If so, how is it that the LTTE is able to maintain a continuous offensive against the security forces in the entirety of the north and east? More so how could a weakened LTTE mount offensives of the dimensions demonstrated at Mullaitivu and Paranthan?
In raising some issues related to these questions, it is not intended to devalue the successes achieved by the armed forces since "Operation Riviresa". Neither is the intention to devalue the commitment of the Government to the war effort.
The issues are raised in these columns with the purpose of, on the one hand to keep the public informed of the complexities of the war, and, on the other, to bring to notice of the Government and other authorities of the concerns of the public in this long drawnout self destructive struggle.
Though the LTTE was pretentious of its coventional battle capabilities, it, in fact, obviously having better knowledge of its limitations, did not seriously confront the Army in the conventional battle for the peninsula. Rather, the LTTE in the fashion of guerrilla strategy shrewdly withdrew its forces into the Wanni to re-organise for different strategy.
The security forces by virtue of operational limitations and deployment were unable to cut-off the LTTE withdrawal. Neither were security forces able for want of resources to pursue the LTTE in offensive operations and to exploit the successes of Riviresa.
Even though there were undeniably some cogent operational limitations which restricted the exploitation of the LTTE withdrawal into the Wanni, yet, in hindsight, it appears that the focus of the Government was to capture Jaffna and so to gain a political advantage.
Had the military objectives been seen in greater depth and given due priority over political considerations, the security forces, might, in spite of their limitations, have been able to inflict considerably greater losses on the LTTE. This would certainly have weakened them, in strength, politically and psychologically. As it turned out, in spite of the political embarrassment of the event, the LTTE was given a respite militarily.
The LTTE hemmed in the Wanni jungles created space for itself by annihilating the Mullaitivu Military Base.
Following this defeat, the security forces for reasons best known to the defence establishment decided to withdraw the Pooneryn military base as well.
The absence of these two bases to the security forces gave the LTTE a further tactical advantage; the freedom of movement in the Wanni. This has largely been the factor which enabled the LTTE to concentrate its forces for mass attacks in the style of Mullaitivu and now on the Elephant Pass - Paranthan - Kilinochchi axis.
Even though the Army has wrested control of the peninsula from the LTTE, by default of offensive operations, the initiative which the Army should have gained was retained by the LTTE. By the very need of the Army to deploy large numbers to secure the real estate and public infrastructure in the peninsula, it has perforce to thin out its resources in the east. This has again given the LTTE greater room to manoeuvre and a wider choice of operational options in the east.
Thus the situation today is that the LTTE remains in a position to exercise its initiative and option with considerable freedom in the whole operational area. The Tigers are certainly unfettered in the Wanni. They have in the two years after "Operation Riviresa" exercise a widespread range of operations extensively, from the jungles of Yala to that of the Wanni.
The LTTE has also demonstrated its capability to concentrate and disperse, as seen by its offensives at Mullaitivu and Paranthan. This is the very essence of guerrilla tactics which enables them, whilst maintaining the initiative to compel the security forces into widespread deployment and so sap their capacity for offensive operations against the guerrillas.
Undoubtedly the loss of the peninsula has conferred a political embarrassment to the LTTE without, however, weakening its military capabilities for reasons earlier explained. Has the Government exploited this political advantage?
It is unfortunate that the Government in the two years since it re-occupied the peninsula has been unable to structure a political and civil administration which could have generated a political drift of the population away from the LTTE. This has also rendered the Government from developing effective confidence building measures to defuse LTTE influence in the peninsula and to gain support.
Here again for reasons best known to the political establishment, the Government has not adequately or effectively exploited the political fall-out from its military gains. Thus there prevails today a political vacuum in the peninsula and by extension amongst the Tamil people.
Had the Government been able to implement positive political measures in the peninsula, it could have hopefully resulted in marginalising the influence of the LTTE by alternate democratic political groups. This could have isolated the LTTE.
The permission given by the Government for democratic political parties to function in the peninsula is a step in the right direction though somewhat belated. One would expect these parties to act with maturity and wisdom to programme bridging of the communal gap rather than to perpetrate sectarian politics at the expense of national unity. Otherwise, it will be a case of the same wine in new bottles, and result only in the continuation of hostilities.
It is a fundamental tenet in irregular warfare that the guerrilla, or whatever its equivalent be, cannot survive in isolation. This opportunity at least for now, appears to be distant.
In the stalemate situation that now prevails it is worth to remember the adage that:
"So long as the guerrilla is not losing, he is winning and so long as a government is not winning, it is losing".
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